Over a dinner at a French Comics Festival, Hunt Emerson drew a caricature of fellow Brit Dave McKean wildly nailing down a kitchen sink onto his artwork. It’s funny, but revealing too, because plenty of pen-and-ink cartoonists were wary, even disdainful, then of the fancy, ‘fine artsy’ experiments McKean was making. But he wasn’t posing: "Comics have developed, or should I say continued monotonously, in a bubble. Form rarely strays from the traditional pencil/inked cartoons that have serviced them for many years." He set out to change them.
In 1987, when McKean drew his debut Escape graphic novel Violent Cases written by Neil Gaiman, his techniques were pretty radical, at least in Eighties English-language comics: collaging maps, texts, fabric, movie posters, to convey the unreliable, distorting lens of memory; choosing different media for different effects, even in the same panel; reconfiguring panels, balloons and captions into fresh relations.
I recall the buzz in Titan Books’ basement when he brought in the moody cover art montaged with faded photos, a torn dollar bill and playing card, and real ivy leaves. Comics weren’t supposed to look like this. Gaiman’s measured, multi-levelled narration, in which he merges recollections of a semi-autobiographical Sixties childhood with those of a gangster massacre in Twenties Chicago, was tailor-made for McKean’s visual imaginings.
When applied, however, to post-Watchmen superheroics on Black Orchid and Batman: Arkham Asylum, McKean’s first comic art in colour far outclassed their overblown genre trappings. Still, the Bat-book earned him his dues and a wider following among fans and pro imitators. Luckily he could turn his back on superheroes forever with the rise of Vertigo Comics. He distinguished and defined DC’s ‘mature readers’ imprint on the racks by using painting, photography, ‘found’ objects and typography on his arresting Hellblazer and Sandman covers.
For style bible The Face magazine, McKean and Gaiman were commissioned to serialise a graphic novel and then expanded it into a book for Gollancz in 1992. In Signal To Noise, an elderly film-director with terminal cancer can’t stop planning his last film in his head, set at the end of the first millennium, when the world is expected to end. This is his way of trying to make sense of the end of his world, to detect a signal amid all of life’s noise. Not the light, easy read The Face may have wanted. The story partly reflects McKean’s passion to make a movie, but more significantly taps into his father’s death when he was 14. Look beyond its demanding formalisms and its content is touchingly bittersweet.
Gaiman and McKean’s next Gollancz collaboration, Mr Punch, an unofficial sequel to Violent Cases, revisits their semi-autobiographical childhood. From a boy’s perspective, adults loom as ‘threatening creatures’, seething with the sort of violence against the family that Mr Punch gets away with. McKean deliberately confounds readers’ expectations, by enacting some of the disturbingly ‘real’ everyday scenes with puppet-like figures and sets, in contrast to the ‘unreal’ dreaming and remembering recorded in photographs.
McKean continues his partnership with Gaiman on acclaimed children’s books, but he writes his own comics too. Almost in an act of self-purification, he strips away Mr Punch‘s overelaborate techniques in his 500-page Cages, reissued by NBM/Titan. He rediscovers the power of making marks on paper, and in its best passages the power of comics to record life’s fleeting details and get inside the minds of his characters. McKean creates a personal creation myth to free his cast from their cages.
He pursues Cages’ direct, strong drawing in two silent fables in Pictures That Tick, his short story collection from Allen Spiegel Fine Arts. His tense penwork in Bitten & Bruised transmits a husband’s growing paranoia of what his wife might be hiding beneath the sheets. One dangerous image can spark a story: a head pierced by a shard of glass urges McKean to re-examine his father and His Story, now that he is a father himself; a branch growing through a girl unleashes the dark cautionary study Ash. McKean is still pushing, though "the comix industry seems pathologically afraid of change". Make some effort and these 18 tales suggest blueprints for the shapes of comics to come.
With hindsight, so much of what McKean started introducing in the late Eighties, such as overlapping images on acetate or playing with the distortions of video and photocopiers, can be seen now as hands-on precursors to the image manipulation software common in comics today.
The latest I heard, McKean is to direct his dream film. But he’ll return to comics, I’m sure. As his painter in Cages says, "the possibilities are limitless".
Posted: November 13, 2005
The original version of this article appeared in 2003 in the pages of Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics.